“Hmm.” Lillian studied the chiseled edge of his profile, thinking that for all his posturing, he had not taken advantage of her helplessness a few moments ago. “You’re awfully forthcoming about your evil intentions. It makes me wonder if I should really worry.”

His only response was an enigmatic smile.

After parting company with Lord St. Vincent, Lillian climbed the steps to the spacious back terrace, where laughter and excited feminine chatter was resounding off the flagstones. Ten young women were standing around one of the tables, involved in some kind of game or experiment. They bent over a row of glasses that had been filled with various liquids, while one of them, who was blindfolded, cautiously dipped her fingers into one of them. Whatever the result was, it caused them all to squeal and giggle. A group of dowagers sat nearby, watching the proceedings with amused interest.

Lillian caught sight of her sister in the crowd, and wandered to her. “What is this?” she asked.

Daisy turned to view her with surprise. “Lillian,” she murmured, slipping an arm around her waist, “why are you back early, dear? Did you have some difficulty at the jumping course?”

Lillian drew her aside while the game continued. “One could say that,” she said tartly, and told her about the events of the morning.

Daisy’s dark eyes turned round with dismay. “Good God,” she whispered. “I can’t imagine Lord Westcliff losing his head that way …and as for you…what were you thinking, to let Lord St. Vincent do such a thing?”

“I was in pain,” Lillian whispered back defensively. “I couldn’t think. I couldn’t even move. If you’d ever had a muscle cramp, you would know how much it hurts.”

“I would elect to lose my leg entirely before letting someone like Lord St. Vincent near it,” Daisy said beneath her breath. After pausing to consider the situation, she couldn’t seem to keep from asking, “What was it like?”

Lillian smothered a laugh. “How should I know? By the time my leg stopped hurting, his hand was gone.”

“Drat.” Daisy frowned slightly. “Do you suppose he’ll tell anyone?”

“Somehow I don’t think he will. He seems to be a gentleman, in spite of his claims otherwise.” A scowl settled on Lillian’s forehead as she added, “Far more of a gentleman than Lord Westcliff was today.”

“Hmm. How did he know that you couldn’t ride sidesaddle?”

Lillian regarded her without rancor. “Don’t play the idiot, Daisy—it’s perfectly obvious that Annabelle told her husband, who then told Westcliff.”

“You won’t hold this against Annabelle, I hope. She never intended for the issue to blow up the way it did.”

“She should have kept her mouth shut,” Lillian said grumpily.

“She was afraid that you would take a tumble if you jumped sidesaddle. We all were.”

“Well, I didn’t!”

“You might have, though.”

Lillian hesitated, her scowl fading as honesty compelled her to admit, “There’s no doubt that I would have, eventually.”

“Then you won’t be cross with Annabelle?”

“Of course not,” Lillian said. “It wouldn’t be fair to blame her for Westcliff’s beastly behavior.”

Looking relieved, Daisy tugged her back to the crowded table. “Come, dear, you must try this game. It’s silly but quite fun.” The girls, all of them unmarried, and ranging in age from their early teens to mid-twenties, moved to make room for the pair of them. While Daisy explained the rules, Evie was blindfolded, and the other girls proceeded to change the positions of the four glasses. “As you can see,” Daisy said, “one glass is filled with soap water, one with clear, and one with blue laundry water. The other, of course, is empty. The glasses will predict what kind of man you will marry.”

They watched as Evie felt carefully for one of the glasses. Dipping her finger into the soap water, Evie waited for her blindfold to be drawn off, and viewed the results with chagrin, while the other girls erupted with giggles.

“Choosing the soap water means she will marry a poor man,” Daisy explained.

Wiping off her fingers, Evie exclaimed good-naturedly, “I s-suppose the fact that I’m going to be m-married at all is a good thing.”

The next girl in line waited with an expectant smile as she was blindfolded, and the glasses were repositioned. She felt for the vessels, nearly overturning one, and dipped her fingers into the blue water. Upon viewing her choice, she seemed quite pleased. “The blue water means she’s going to marry a noted author,” Daisy told Lillian. “You try next!”

Lillian gave her a speaking glance. “You don’t really believe in this, do you?”

“Oh, don’t be cynical—have some fun!” Daisy took the blindfold and rose on her toes to tie it firmly around Lillian’s head.

Bereft of sight, Lillian allowed herself to be guided to the table. She grinned at the encouraging cries of the young women around her. There was the sound of the glasses being moved in front of her, and she waited with her hands half raised in the air. “What happens if I pick the empty glass?” she asked.

Evie’s voice came near her ear. “You die a sp-spinster!” she said, and everyone laughed.

“No lifting the glasses to test their weight,” someone warned with a giggle. “You can’t avoid the empty glass, if it’s your fate!”

“At the moment I want the empty glass,” Lillian replied, causing another round of laughter.

Finding the smooth surface of a glass, she slid her fingers up the side and dipped them into the cool liquid. A general round of applause and cheering, and she asked, “Am I marrying an author, too?”

“No, you chose the clear water,” Daisy said. “A rich, handsome husband is coming for you, dear!”

“Oh, what a relief,” Lillian said flippantly, lowering the blindfold to peek over the edge. “Is it your turn now?”

Her younger sister shook her head. “I was the first to try. I knocked over a glass twice in a row, and made a dreadful mess.”

“What does that mean? That you won’t marry at all?”

“It means that I’m clumsy,” Daisy replied cheerfully. “Other than that, who knows? Perhaps my fate has yet to be decided. The good news is that your husband seems to be on the way.”

“If so, the bastard is late,” Lillian retorted, causing Daisy and Evie to laugh.

CHAPTER 9

Unfortunately, the news of the altercation between Lillian and Lord Westcliff spread swiftly through the entire household. By early evening it had reached Mercedes Bowman’s ears, and the result was not a pretty sight. White-eyed and shrill, Mercedes paced in front of her daughter in her room.

“Perhaps it could have been overlooked, had you simply made some inappropriate remark in Lord Westcliff’s presence,” Mercedes stormed, her skinny arms thrashing in wild gesticulations. “But for you to argue with the earl himself, and then to disobey him in front of everyone—do you realize how that makes us appear? You are not only ruining your own chances of marriage, but your sister’s chances as well! Who would wish to marry into a family that must claim a …a philistine as one of their own?”

Feeling a stirring of shame, Lillian cast an apologetic glance at Daisy, who sat in the corner. Daisy shook her head slightly in reassurance.

“If you insist on behaving like a savage creature,” Mercedes continued, “then I will be forced to take harsh measures, Lillian Odelle!”

Lillian sank lower on the settee at the sound of her hated middle name, the use of which always heralded some dire punishment.

“For the next week, you will not venture out of this room unless you are in my company,” Mercedes said grimly. “I will monitor every action, every gesture, and every word that issues from your mouth, until I am convinced that you can be trusted to behave like a reasonable human being. It will be a shared punishment, for I find as little pleasure in your company as you find in mine. But I see no other alternative. And if you offer one word of protest, I shall double your punishment and make it a fortnight! During the times that you are not under my supervision, you will remain in this room, reading or meditating on your ill-advised conduct. Do you understand me, Lillian?”

“Yes, Mother.” The prospect of being watched so closely for a week made Lillian feel like a caged animal. Repressing a howl of protest, she gazed mutinously at the flower-patterned carpet.

“The first thing you will do tonight,” Mercedes continued, her eyes flashing in her narrow white face, “is apologize to Lord Westcliff for the trouble you caused earlier today. You will do it in my presence, so that I—”

“Oh no.” Lillian sat up straight, glaring at her mother in open rebellion. “No. There is nothing that you or anyone can do to make me apologize to him. I’ll die first.”

“You will do as I say.” Mercedes’s voice lowered to a near growl. “You will apologize to the earl with abject humility, or you will not leave this room once for the rest of our stay here!”

As Lillian opened her mouth, Daisy interrupted hastily. “Mother, may I speak to Lillian privately, please? Just for a moment. Please.”

Mercedes stared hard from one daughter to the other, shook her head as if wondering why she had been cursed with such unmanageable children, and strode from the room.

“She’s truly angry this time,” Daisy murmured in the dangerous silence that lingered in her wake. “I’ve never seen Mother in such a state. You may have to do as she asks.”

Lillian stared at her in impotent fury. “I will not apologize to that superior ass!”

“Lilian, it would cost you nothing. Just say the words. You don’t have to mean them. Just say, ‘Lord Westcliff, I—’ “

“I will not,” Lillian repeated stonily. “And it would cost something—my pride.”

“Is it worth being locked in this room, and having to miss all the soirees and suppers that everyone else will be enjoying? Please don’t be stubborn! Lillian, I promise, I will help you think up some dreadful revenge on Lord Westcliff …something really evil. Just do what Mother wants for now—you may lose the battle, but you’ll win the war. Besides…” Daisy searched desperately for another argument to sway her. “Besides, nothing would please Lord Westcliff more than for you to be locked away for the entire visit. You would be powerless to annoy or torment him. Out of sight, out of mind. Don’t give him that satisfaction, Lillian!”

It was perhaps the only argument that had the power to influence her. Frowning, Lillian stared at her sister’s small ivory face, with its intelligent dark eyes and brows that were a shade too strongly marked. Not for the first time, she wondered how it was that the person most willing to join her reckless adventures was also the one who could most easily recall her to reason. Many people were often deceived by Daisy’s frequent moments of whimsy, never suspecting the bedrock of ruthless common sense beneath the elfin facade.

“I’ll do it,” she said stiffly. “Though I’ll probably choke on the words.”

Daisy let out a huge sigh of relief. “I’ll act as your intermediary. I’ll tell Mother that you’ve agreed, and that she mustn’t lecture you any further, or you might change your mind.”

Lillian slumped on the settee, envisioning Westcliff’s smug satisfaction when she was forced to deliver her apology. Damnation, it would be unbearable. Seething with animosity, she entertained herself by planning a series of complicated revenges against Westcliff, ending with the vision of him begging for mercy.

An hour later, the Bowman family proceeded from their room as one unit, led by Thomas Bowman. Their eventual destination was the dining hall, where another bombastic four-hour supper would be held. Having been recently apprised of his eldest daughter’s shameful behavior, Thomas was in a state of barely contained fury, his mustache bristling above his set mouth.

Dressed in a pale lavender silk gown trimmed with spills of white lace at the bodice and short puffed sleeves, Lillian walked resolutely behind her parents, while her father’s wrathful words floated back to her.

“The moment you become a handicap to a potential business deal is the moment that I send you packing for New York. So far this husband-hunting sojourn in England has proved to be expensive and unproductive. I warn you, daughter, if your actions have disrupted my negotiations with the earl—”

“I’m sure they haven’t,” Mercedes interrupted frantically, as her dreams of attaining a titled son-in-law wobbled like a teacup poised on the edge of a table. “Lillian will apologize to Lord Westcliff, dear, and that will set everything to rights. You will see.” Falling a half step behind him, she glanced over her shoulder to level a threatening glare at her elder daughter.

Part of Lillian felt like curling up into a ball of remorse, while the other part wanted to explode with resentment. Naturally her father would take exception to anyone and anything that threatened to interfere with his business…otherwise, he couldn’t have cared less about her actions. All he had ever wanted of his daughters was for them to keep from bothering him. Had it not been for her three brothers, Lillian would have never known what it was like to receive even negligible crumbs of male attention.

“To ensure that you have the opportunity to properly ask the earl’s pardon,” Thomas Bowman said, pausing to glance at Lillian with hard, stone-colored eyes, “I have requested his indulgence in meeting us in the library before dinner. You will apologize to him then— both to my satisfaction and to his.”

Coming to a dead halt, Lillian stared at him with wide eyes. Her resentment built in a hot, choking mass as she wondered if Westcliff had arranged this scenario as a lesson in humiliation. “Does he know why you’ve asked to meet him there?” she managed to ask.

“No. Nor do I believe that he expects an apology from one of my notoriously ill-mannered daughters. However, if you do not deliver a satisfactory one, you will soon take your last glance of England from the deck of a steamer bound from New York.”

Lillian was not fool enough to discount her father’s words as an idle threat. His tone was utterly convincing in its grim imperative. And the thought of being forced to leave England, and worse, to be separated from Daisy…

“Yes, sir,” she said, her jaw clenched.

The family proceeded along the hallway in strained silence.


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